Spending an afternoon at the ballpark comes with a warning printed on the back of the ticket. Whether they realize it or not, fans assume the risk of being hit by a foul ball or errant shard from a broken bat during the game. When balls enter the stands, fans clamor to collect a souvenir, but some foul balls, especially line drives, prove hard to handle and dangerous to fans.
Two young fans have suffered serious injuries this season after being struck by hard-hit foul balls. The first was a 2-year-old girl attending the Chicago Cubs at Houston Astros game May 29, and the other was a young girl attending the Colorado Rockies at Los Angeles Dodgers game June 24. Both were hospitalized with serious head injuries.
These injuries have re-invigorated the debate about protective netting at baseball stadiums.
“One more fan having a severe injury or, in a really unfortunate situation, a death is something that is unacceptable,” Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Rich Hill told the Los Angeles Times. “You come to the ballpark for a reprieve and to take a break from the hectic schedule of life to enjoy watching us go out there and play. And you want to feel comfortable and safe.”
According a 2014 study by Bloomberg, an average of approximately 1,750 fans are hit by foul balls each year.
Plans to extend protective netting
MLB mandates teams have protective netting that extends to the end of the dugout. A few teams, including the Dodgers, are planning to extend protective netting beyond the dugout by the end of this season.
The Washington Nationals announced June 20 they will install netting to the right and left field corners during the All-Star break. Managing Principal Owner and Vice Chairman Mark Lerner said the club is expanding the netting as a preemptive measure to improve fan safety.
The Arizona Diamondbacks extended the protective netting at Chase Field to the end of the dugouts in 2018, but have not made any indication that the netting will be extended any further at this time.
The debate from both sides
Not all fans are on board with these changes though. Fans, especially season ticket holders, are afraid netting will obstruct their view of the field. They’re also worried nets will prevent them from catching foul balls.
“We sit here (down the third-base line) because of no netting,” Cubs fan Timothy Derby told the Chicago Tribune. “I understand behind home plate, but to have it extend to the foul pole is kind of like an obstruction. It’s not baseball.”
Players are generally in favor of increased netting.
The debate about protective netting is not new. In 2017, a young fan was hit in the head by a foul ball off the bat of Todd Frazier at Yankee Stadium. That incident led to the league-wide mandate in 2018 extending all netting to the end of the dugout. Beyond the league minimum, the decision on netting is left to each team.
Protective netting in Japanese baseball
Professional baseball teams in Japan have taken a different approach. According to a Forbes article, the Tokyo Dome has had protective netting from foul pole to foul pole since it opened in 1988. Additionally, they have extensive signage warning fans of the dangers of foul balls, ushers have whistles they blow when a ball leaves the field of play and the ushers check on fans after each foul ball that enters the stands.
To satisfy thrill-seeking fans, the stadium offers something called “excite seats.” Seats in front of the netting that give fans an unobstructed view of the action. But safety is still paramount. The seats come with a helmet and glove for each fan.
Baseball isn’t the only sport in which fans can be injured by objects leaving the field of play though. Hockey, cricket and golf face similar issues.
Not long ago, there was no netting at hockey arenas. If a puck cleared the boards, it hurled toward fans at speeds up to 100 miles per hour.
In 2002, 13-year-old Brittanie Cecil died from injuries she suffered after being hit in the head by a puck at a Columbus Blue Jackets game. The NHL was quick to act. By the end of the season, it mandated every team install 18-foot-high nets in the corners and ends of the ice. The nets haven’t eliminate fan injuries, but Cecil’s death remains the only one in NHL history.
Cricket grounds do not have protective netting for spectators. While some space exists between the field and the stands, no barrier separates fans from incoming balls. In Australia, preventive measures include verbal and visual warnings.
“At all our matches, we continually warn fans of this hazard through PA reads with accompanying vision screen graphics as well as targeting bays likely to be affected during warmup drills,” a Cricket Australia (CA) spokesman told the Sydney Morning Herald. “We provide education of certain shots over the PA system and vision screen, particularly with a free hit, with the sounding of the siren, and then utilise the siren when a free hit occurs. Finally, all of our event staff are briefed of this risk at prematch briefings to appropriately assist fans at the ground.”
In cricket, promotions are tied to catching sixes -- balls hit outside the field of play. According to the BBC, New Zealand Cricket and “a brewery sponsor are offering $50,000 to any fan who catches a six one-handed while wearing a promotional T-shirt.” While some have called for protective netting at cricket grounds, the movement has not gained much traction.
Golf courses do not have protective netting either. Any netting along the course would prevent players from playing the ball where it lands. Ushers and a thin piece of rope are all that separate fans from the action.
Fans have been hit in the head by balls during competition, but few strikes have resulted in serious injuries. Most recently, a woman was hit in the eye by a golf ball at the 2018 Ryder Cup.
Golf is unlikely to add protective barriers between fans and the course. Rather, the sport will continue to rely on players yelling ‘fore’ and vigilant ushers to warn of incoming balls.
After an injury, fans can face difficulty trying to recover financially. Teams across the world are protected from injury lawsuits by a waiver usually printed on the back of the ticket. Fans assume all risk for any injury they may incur once they enter a stadium or arena.
This precedent dates to 1913 and the “Baseball Rule.” In Crane v. Kansas City Baseball & Exhibition Co., S.J. Crane was injured by a foul ball at a Kansas City Blues game. The court granted summary judgment in favor of the team for three reasons. One, foul balls are fundamentally part of baseball. Two, being struck by a foul ball is a well-known risk of attending a baseball game. And, finally, Crane voluntarily chose to sit in unprotected seats.
According to the Boston Globe, the “Baseball Rule states that stadium owners and operators are not responsible for injuries sustained by foul balls or pieces of shattered bats, so long as netted or screened seats are in place for a reasonable number of spectators. The onus is on the fans to be alert during the game.”
The ruling is still upheld today, so owners and teams cannot be held liable for fan injuries during a game. Legal suits rarely result in monetary gains for those who are injured. While the 100-year-old legal doctrine has come under increasing criticism, fans must remain vigilant and rely on safety measures each team has in place.
Sarah Farrell is a graduate student studying sports journalism at Arizona State University
Editor’s note: For the coming 2019-2020 academic year, the Global Sport Institute’s research theme will be “Sport and the body.” The Institute will conduct and fund research and host events that will explore a myriad of topics related to the body.